Kelenic, Gilbert usher in new Mariners era

May 13th, 2021

It’s not up to the pickers, the prognosticators or the projections to determine when a Major League team is ready to rise. The game is still played by human beings capable of transcending or underperforming expectations, of getting hurt or healthy, of adapting their pitch grips or swing planes or changing their lucky underwear.

Stuff happens, in other words. And opportunities arise that few saw coming. That’s why we have the fun phenomenon known as the surprise squad -- the one that defies the doubters and dictates its own timetable, projections be damned.

It’s too soon to say if the 2021 Mariners are such a squad. But here they are hovering around .500 in a winnable American League West. And here they are adding some new players to their mix, ushering in the notion that maybe, just maybe, their time is now.

This is Day. And it is Day. Both started against Cleveland on Thursday night in a celebratory scene at T-Mobile Park.

No matter the outcome of this particular game, this is a different sort of day for a Mariners fan base that has suffered through the longest playoff drought in American professional sports (dating back to 2001, just two years after Kelenic was born), the false starts and the false hopes and the failed prospects past.

This is a day to dream.

Kelenic (pronounced KELL-nick) is a dynamic outfield bat, a cocksure Wisconsinite brought into the fold via a Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz trade that many still can’t believe actually transpired. In the prospect-hoarding present, to land a talent like Kelenic while moving the mountain of money attached to a then-36-year-old second baseman was a remarkable organizational reset. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has earned all kinds of accolades for that one, even though Kelenic has yet to play a single game in the bigs.

Now it’s time for the baseball world, at large, to see what all the fuss is about. To see if the 21-year-old Kelenic, who is ranked No. 1 on the Mariners’ top prospects list and No. 4 overall by MLB Pipeline, can continue a trend in which he’s raked wherever he’s roamed, be it prep school amongst the Cheeseheads, Rookie ball, A-ball, the alternate training site or, most recently, his brief first exposure to Triple-A. Point him to home plate, and he’ll take it from there.

If Kelenic were it, that would be enough reason for those of us raising kids in the overrated Eastern Time Zone to stay up late and watch the Mariners. But Gilbert’s debuting, too, ready to literally pitch in for a Seattle team that has been barraged by injuries on the pitching front.

The right-handed Gilbert, who turned 24 last week, is No. 4 on the Mariners’ top prospects list and No. 28 overall. He’s a product of Stetson University, which produced a couple of late-round Draft picks by the name of Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber, both of whom, of course, went on to win multiple Cy Young Awards.

By the time Gilbert came around in 2018, the industry had wised up, and the Mariners took him 14th overall in the MLB Draft. Since then, Gilbert posted a 2.13 ERA with 165 strikeouts against 33 walks across three Minor League levels in 2019, drew raves at the alternate training site last summer and threw five effective innings in the Triple-A debut that preceded his callup.

Are the Mariners contenders? Right now, we don’t know. And right now, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is this club has turned the page on the Draft and development duds of the Jack Zduriencik era, when a center fielder named Dustin Ackley was taken 23 spots ahead of Mike Trout and when a pitcher named Danny Hultzen was selected between Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. It has moved on from the disappointment of the Nelson Cruz- and Canó-led clubs that, for all their star-power, couldn’t get Félix Hernández to October. It has begun to field a club more reflective of what Dipoto discussed when he said he wanted to “reimagine” the roster a few years back and made a billion trades toward that end.

Last November, I picked the Mariners to win the AL West, just for funsies. The point of that pick was not that the Mariners were ready for prime time, but that the division seemed to be taking a decisive downturn and that a club loaded with near big league ready prospects and fitted with financial flexibility had a chance to be frisky. Seattle didn’t follow suit with a dynamic winter, but it has nevertheless gotten off to a solid start -- albeit one challenged by injuries to starters James Paxton, Marco Gonzales and Nick Margevicius.

So, in summary, I don’t know if the Mariners are actually any good yet. And it’s not for me or you or anybody else to decide. All we know is that, given the evolution of how clubs construct their rosters, the standings are increasingly dictated by the learning curves of young players. And the Mariners have just promoted two of the more exciting young players in any system.

That makes this a fun day for a fan base that, Lord knows, has waited long enough. It’s Kelenic’s time. And it’s Gilbert’s time.

It just might be the Mariners’ time, too.